Parkway Theatre, Baltimore MD
November 17, 2017
Reviewed by Jack Livingston
When I was a child attending the then standard double feature films at our local cinema palace, each film would be preceded by a couple of Warner Brothers cartoons. Watching the exaggerated visual vavoom the audience roared along with the antics of the beloved cast of pranksters (Bugs Bunny), losers (Daffy Duck), and dopes (Elmer Fudd) that populated the various Looney Toons shorts. At home, television's local programming maintained a plethora of shows before and after school aimed at the “kiddie” demographic. These shows—in my hometown headed by the upbeat couple Fred n Faye and on the other channel good ol’ Sheriff Scotty—relied on cartoons from all time periods to keep their fan base watching, punctuating them with ads for sugar drenched breakfast cereal while hawking the toys of the era. In this way a dedicated viewer could, in a short time, become familiar with the entire canon of the mass entertainment animated cartoon, from early Disney, the recent bizarre Claymation of the helium voiced Gumby, the odd stop motion Christmas specials, up though the already meta and deeply subversive Rocky and Bullwinkle. A discerning kid with an inclination for art of any kind quickly learned the style of each production company, and the names who created the work. These animated shorts delivered a surreal never never land that plugged directly into the fantastical fever dreams that make up childhood. Along with comic books they were the gateway drug to the world of fine art many of us dedicated consumers would later find ourselves inhabiting.
Today animation is ubiquitous. In entertainment, it is the format of television’s longest running show, The Simpsons, as well as many other cultural satire series beloved by the public—adult and children alike. But more interesting is, since its inception, the ways animation has continued to innovate and grow in the context of art cinema and in how it flourishes today. Now with the added tools of digital cameras and programs the lexicon of the medium is rapidly expanding. Today animation is not only a large part of standard entertainment industry, and the Academy Awards shorts entry section, it maintains a vital place in the art world underground worldwide.
In Baltimore, the five-year-old presentation organization with the perfectly fitting brat-tween name of Sweaty Eyeballs was created to bring to the public the best of new animation. Sweaty Eyeballs was founded by Phil Davis (Towson University) and Max Porter (Maryland Institute College of Art), both animators and filmmakers in their own right. They curate the films with obsessive dedication. Last year all their screenings moved to the glorious refurbished Parkway Theater in Baltimore’s Station North Arts District.
On November 17, the Sweaty Eyeballs team presented their 6th annual animation Invitational at the Parkway. The place was buzzing and filled early, by show time it was a raucous full house. Sitting in the balcony of the new theater was thrilling. The night consisted of films by 14 animators from around the world, some working alone and DIY, and others with full crews and extravagant budgets. Each film was a gem the curators gleaned from attending various animation film festivals, or following online sources and favorite individual artists. Reading the biographies of the animators reveals a fascinating collection of people who have one thing in common besides creativity—patience. The labor-intensive nature of stop motion cinema of all styles is mind boggling and demands serious dedication.
The evening kicked off with Double King, a classic animation style jaunt by Australian Felix Colgrave that portrayed a goofy ominous creature gobbling up various other plant and animal “kings” in pursuit of their crowns. Colgrave, who has made work since the age of 13, here presents an absurd quest for the symbol of power that is akin to a boiled down minutes long funfest Game of Thrones in bright colors with a dab of psychedelic goof and psychological dread.
The second film Woodswimmer by American Brett Foxwell (with music by ambient sound artist Bedtimes) depicts a piece of raw wood from the stump end up as it runs through a milling machine captured via stop motion. The film reveals a gorgeous display of forms as the tiny wood particles pour out and around wood rings like buzzing fluid larva. This roiling biomorphic abstraction was the most beautiful and mysterious film of the evening.
Up next was Island by German artists Robert Löbel, Max Mörtl. Using 2-D computer animation and stop motion they created a world of oddball creatures running about in Marx Brothers like bedlam. This brightly colored film is fun though a little slight as the gags begin to wear thin.
Of much greater substance was the slow-paced coming-out tale depicted in the 12-minute sepia toned animation Maacher Johl (The Fish Curry) by Indian animator Abhishek Verma. Maacher Jhol is a traditional Bengali fish stew. In the film, a closeted gay son is visited by his loving father. He has carefully prepared the dish in honor of the occasion. Over diner, after his father gently urges him to marry a proper woman, the son admits he is in love, but with a man. The aftermath is wisely not conclusive nor cliché. The film is honest, real, and moving and contained the best serious interpersonal narrative of any film of the night.
Canadian Steven Woloshen’s entry Casino, is dedicated to his father and the man’s love of gambling. Hand drawn and brightly painted direct to film and set to Oscar Peterson’s jazzy upbeat song Something Coming, Casino attempts to capture the jumpy sensations of what it is like to gamble the day away, with fleeting rolling dice, and roulette wheels amid darting eyes, and walk the wild side excitement. While the hand-made quality is to be admired in this age of digital overload, in the end the concept is better than the actual work.
Next was Bone Gym, a heavily DIY romp by Baltimore artist Albert Birney. Birney’s black and white jumpy animation of people exercising using skulls and other bone parts in front of a static omnipresent flat-screen TV, as well as appropriated running digital skeletons galore. Bone Gym looks like vintage Wham City hi-jinx, and as such it was an oddball delight.
French artist Lucrèce Andreae’s entry Pépé le Morse (Grandpa Walrus), is a full-blown film narrative that follows a family’s trip on a cold October day back to the location on a beach where their Grandpa has died—apparently from being overweight and chain smoking while lying about in the sun. Old guys of his ilk, we are informed at the beginning, wear speedos and are nick-named Old Walrus’. Andreae clearly has a team of animators here and the production values are top notch, almost Disney like but with a hip French twist. Each character is fleshed out—the grieving Grandma, the overwhelmed broad lip-stick wearing Mother swearing her way through the trip, two spunky teenage girls, a curious younger brother who seeks out some more mystical answers as his sisters ditch him, and a starry-eyed toddler. The narration builds to a climax that relieves the family of its angst and worry and they trudge back home all the better for it. The film’s high-quality script, avoidance of clichés, and its neat cinematic chops make it a very satisfying professional film, the kind one might expect in larger award competition. That said, it is these very attributes that make it feel a little less interesting then the more experimental works.
Next up was the only overt Claymation film of the evening— American Evelyn Jane Ross’s Adam. The two-and-a-half-minute film is an ocean of brown clay with body parts in various proportions emerging out of and then dissolving in a seething chthonic ooze. While the work started strong, in the end it had a student experimentation vibe, and was too predictable to hold the viewers interest— the use of claymation too staid.
The ninth entry, Makin’ Moves by Kouhei Nakama of Japan, shook the clay off with an inventive computer-generated electro beat eye-opener (music by Broke for Free). Using a variety of generative and particle-based (whatever that means exactly…) computer programs everyday people (such as a business man, or a hip kid) split back and forth into splices and morph into swarming flowing clusters. While this is at its core simply eye candy, it maintains interest through a kind of visionary upbeat humor that is impossible to predict. Online, Nakama is listed as the art director, so we can assume the actual production was completed by a team of programmers, and thus one can guess that this is so reliant on the latest in computer technology that in the future it won’t seem nearly as interesting, but today the wow factor puts it on the charts fair and square.
Americans Joseph Bennett and Charles Huettner 8-minute animation Scavengers shows two protagonists, one male one female, harrumphing around an interplanetary human settlement called Vista One in a series of fast cut Twilight Zone meets Avatar: The Last Airbender adventures striving to bring some kind of meaning to their situation. While many scenes are fun and suspenseful, its best moments are when it plunges deep into the dark surreal irony lurking at its core. Unfortunately, there are not enough of them.
Hayley Morris, also from the USA, presented The Ecstatics a beautiful stop motion music video for the band Explosions in the Sky, known for their lush electronic instrumentals they deem "cathartic mini-symphonies". Morris and team created the The Ecstatics video using intricately cut paper, and hand-blown glass, along with projected color all via stop motion work. They created imagery transforming from the figurative to the biomorphic. It is a journey awash in a mostly blue white color range. Morris’s work is one example of how animation continues to be used commercially via music video, a form that have a history of using the latest in animation enhancing both mediums in the process. The Ecstatics successfully updates this tradition.
Coming in at number thirteen on the roster of the evenings shorts was Rabbit’s Blood by Japanese artist Sarina Nihei. The animator has a passion for Estonian animation, the earliest form of the art characterized by simplistic yet expressive often surreal hand drawn black and white images. Rabbit’s Blood maintains the essence of Estonian animation but melds its dream world ethos to a contemporary metaphoric narrative where young women are stuck in a dystopian world occupied by two groups—dangerous men in dark coats, and rabbits with 35 millimeter cameras and a knack for finding escape hatches. A wild plot ensues. Due to its jump cut bizarre narrative with simple yet effective use of image Rabbit’s Blood was one of the best of the festival.
The next to last work presented, Disillusionment of 10 Point Font, by American Greg Conden was one of the shortest and simplest of the animations presented. It is text doing what the typed word says in clever ways using only the type. Using a Smith Carona typewriter to create the text on white paper the artist then simply manipulated the type via stop motion and computer graphics programs. While this film has clever moments that illicit surprise and a bit of laughter overall, when compared to the other work it was a one trick pony, and as such was the least interesting of the evening.
The festival curators saved the very best for last with Min Börda (The Burden) by Swedish animator Niki Lindroth von Bahr (clearly working with a uber talented team). This brilliant stop motion four-part musical, takes place in four different delightfully hand built sets—a motel, a call center, a hamburger restaurant, and a supermarket. It features a cadre of singing and dancing animals—including fish, mice, and monkeys. All in the crossroads of a noir-lit flat small town floating on a chunk of earth spinning away untethered in space. It is a lovely mix of Singing in the Rain, Carmen, Blue Velvet, and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Every detail is attended to in such a way that you empathize with these absurd little creatures all the while feeling totally entertained. There they are floating away in a cold deep space wearing absurd odd little outfits, trying to find a bit of love and a kernel of meaning on the way— just like—well, virtually all of us.
As an evening out, The Sweaty Eyeballs Animation Invitational was wildly entertaining and inspiring. The location could not be more exquisite. The curators provided the audience with an inspiring evening that flew by with fourteen top notch entries. Judging by the crowd, which included a broad range of locals, among them many students who got to attend for free thanks to numerous sponsors, Baltimore may soon be experiencing an animation boom of its own. Let’s hope so. With the kind of weird vision Mob City tends to produce the possibilities are tantalizing.